Religious Plurality and Christian Self-understanding

General Observations, Critique and Points of Engagement
Fr. Dr. Jaroslaw Buciora

Commission on Faith and Witness of the Canadian Council of Churches

Fr. Dr. Jaroslaw Buciora

Fr. Dr. Jaroslaw Buciora


Without a doubt, the contemporary world is a platform of an unprecedented engagement of cultures, nations, and religions. Never before has there been such a concentration of discussions that has embraced so many complicated and multidimensional perspectives on human life in the globalized world. The interaction of people of different ethnic and national backgrounds with religious beliefs presents a new challenge for traditional Christianity of the East and West, which needs to address the basic issues of human inter-religious interaction and offer a perspective for future engagement. We, as Christians, are in no position to abstain from the inter-religious dialogue as this would lead to the formation of religious ghettos, ethnic purging, and religious fanaticism. An authentic Christianity has no dealings with political or religious fanaticism. Intolerance has never been part of Orthodox ethos. The rejection of inter-religious dialogue would also mean a neglect of the major issues of today’s globalized society that searches for solutions to ecological issues, poverty, international stability and peace, and the consequences of war. Christianity can’t ignore the fact that two-thirds of the world’s population share in “the hope we have in us” (span class=”rubrics” (1 Pet. 3.15).

Because of the enormity of the task and the extreme difficulty of engagement, it is not surprising to see so few official Church position statements and points of engagement for the future of inter-religious dialogue. Although there are some denominational statements on religious pluralism, Christianity, in general, moves very slowly towards consensus. The document of the World Council of Churches (“WCC”): “Religious Plurality and Christian Self-Understanding”, is one of those papers in which the attempt is made to substantiate the basic principles and beliefs on the subject of religious plurality.

Based on the prologue, the final draft of the document is based on twenty years of deliberations and theological engagement of the Christian Churches. The amount of resources and time spent on the particular document emphasizes the difficulties and enormity of the subject for Christianity in general. What is surprising is that the document does not hesitate to call the issue difficult, and there is even a definite emphasis on the controversy of religious pluralism. Because of the difficulty of the subject and its controversy, the document is not a representation of the official position of WCC. As such, the lack of an official position of the WCC on the inter-religious dialogue follows the Orthodox position where there is also no official decision on the inter-religious dialogue. The paper could be understood as a background paper for further theological discussion and debate. As such, it opens a door for continual engagement particularly from the Canadian perspective. From the other side, without a doubt, the document could be an introduction to the theological foundation for future inter-religious dialogue and theological discussion.

Without going into a deep analysis of the document from an Orthodox perspective, allow me to present to you a general observation on the document to further future inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogue. The critique is presented as a catalyst for further fruitful theological engagement.

General observations and critique

The document, in its first part, identifies the basic necessity for inter-religious dialogue facing our globalized society. The text identifies a multidimensional need for such a dialogue with all of its difficulties, historical obstacles, and existing political ideologies. It also mentions the pastoral necessity of such a dialogue that is already accentuated in our Canadian society. Without spending much time on particular sentences or statements that could be questioned from the Orthodox perspective, the first part in a satisfactory way embraces the foundations of the existing inter-religious challenges.

The second part of the document (par. 26 and further) identifies the theological foundation for the establishment of the theological grounds for the inter-religious discussion. One of the first observations that comes from our analysis emphasizes the Christological foundation of the inter-religious dialogue. Chapter 28 of the document appears to be the work of theologians from the Orthodox Church as it accentuates some of the fundamental characteristics of Christ’s mission: incarnation, kenosis, cross, and resurrection. Subsequently, the emphasis of the document directs us to the aspect of hospitality that is closely related to the Christological aspect of the document. It is hospitality, according to the document, that invites us to the genuine openness to others of different national and religious backgrounds. It is my impression that the rest of the document is based on the aspect of hospitality elaborated by the previous documents of the WCC. What is lacking in the document is the absence of the definition of hospitality in relation to the polytheistic religions and various philosophical trends. What is the relation of the Christian theology of hospitality towards the theosophies and undefined deisms?

It is remarkable to see the theme of Pneumatology as an intrinsic component of the entire discussion. Without a doubt, the presence of Christology and Pneumatology strengthens the foundation of the basic principle of the document. The rest of the text, with all the practical and theological implications, draws us to the theme of inter-religious openness and internal transformation.

The document presented by the World Council of Churches on inter-religious dialogue presents us with a substantiated material that has to be closely analyzed. But from the other side, it also contains some weaknesses that, based on Orthodox thought, can’t be ignored. Some of the flaws are contained in the theological foundation of the document and in the practical implications of the theological statements in inter-religious dialogue. We have to be clear that the development of a creative and realistically constructive dialogue with the other faiths can be built only on solid theological foundation. In the Orthodox perspective, the emphasis will always be on the Trinitarian perspective.

The emphasis of the document on the Christological aspect, although foundational for the Christian doctrine, creates a tension with the monotheistic religions. The discussion of the inter-religious context could be stalled from the very beginning if the balance between the Trinitarian theology and Christology would not be preserved. In the Christian theological discussion, the element of Christology is essential for any other theme of discussions. Even the field of salvation, discussed among our Council members, is entirely based on Christology and its elements. This is the way we have learned to lead our dialogue among the Christian Churches. But we have to be conscious of the fact that this approach could be detrimental to inter-religious discussion. We are not suggesting the removal of Christology, as this would be the annihilation of our own Christian identity and an indication of the watering down of our faith. Our attention is directed towards a different application of theology in general when creating the foundation for the inter-religious dialogue. I’m a strong believer that inter-religious dialogue is not at the present time a combat of theological systems of religions as this was being interpreted in the past. The authors of the document are quite cognizant of exclusiveness and religious fanaticism that was developed in the last five centuries. The inter-religious dialogue has to be understood as a meeting point of human persons that are searching for a fundamental convergence. The basic convergence, foundational for dialogue, is a common, widely accepted and unquestionable nature of humanity. The foundation for the inter-religious dialogue, based on human nature, facilitates an elimination of misunderstandings and established psychologically codified misconceptions about the “others” that is based on religious experience. Patriarch Bartholomew, in his address to the participants of the Conference on Inter-religious Dialogue held in Istanbul on March 7, 1998 strongly testified that the conflicts among the adherents of different religions are due to misinformation and misunderstanding. The interaction among people that directs our attention to the commonalities of life is rightly defined by the contemporary thinkers as a “dialogue of life”, which instead of a common agreement requires a mutual respect for the greater cause. In fact, the entire discussion leads us towards the theme of anthropology that is identified as a unifying link for future inter-religious interaction. One of the elements of anthropology that is universal for humanity is the aspect of freedom of every individual which is essential for the Christian anthropology. The emphasis on the necessity of Christology in inter-religious dialogue corresponds with the established theological criteria of the past that could be detrimental to a dialogue. This kind of established criteria of theological engagement could even be detrimental to Christology in itself as Christology could become a secondary theme for theological elaboration. What is even worse for the theme of Christology is that it could slip away from the life of Christians and eventually become a field of discussion for “professionals” of theology. The disengagement of Christology from the life of the Church would be theological suicide for Christianity in general. A solid theological approach to inter-religious dialogue requires from us a constructive and realistic foundation that is always Trinitarian and always Christologically oriented, even though directly not identified. In order to be engaged in this kind of approach, there is a need for a solid theological knowledge of our own doctrinal foundation and theological truth. There is also a necessity to be familiar with other religions as vague familiarity creates a negative illusion. In order to achieve an adequate theological readiness, there is a requirement of a creative personal reorientation, peace, humility, respect, and honesty when approaching the mystery of the “other human beings”. This approach requires a living relationship that constantly evolves and continually creates a living theology of relationship. This kind of approach could be a positive catalyst that eliminates the suspicion of hidden agendas.

The other weakness of the document on religious pluralism relates to the practical implication of the doctrinal statements of Christianity in the interreligious dialogue. From one perspective, the document elaborates on the doctrinal foundation of Christianity, but from the other side, the document in no way shows us how to implement within the context of dialogue. In a specific way, there is a disengagement between theology and theological pragmatism. As we engage in the analysis of the weakness of the document, we can be amazed by the fact that we are still contained in the established logical formulas of the past inadvertently disconnected from the present reality. According to my personal observation, it is a weakness of intellectual scholastic theology that gave birth to contemporary secularism. The contemporary inter-religious dialogue requires not a compilation of theological formulas but the encompassing of living testimony of the revelation of the living God that is experienced by regular members of society. An honest approach to inter-religious dialogue requires a mature theological attitude and an exceptionally critical mind with the ability to be perceptive of contemporary arguments without oversimplification and compromise.

Points of engagements

One of the living experiential realities of God in the Orthodox perspective is the emphasis on the mystery of God as a Living Personal Absolute. Our God that is beyond any comprehension and human capabilities. God is also beyond verbalization, comprehension, beyond vision and understanding. It is also true that, according to the Biblical revelation, although God remains incomprehensible in nature, God reveals Himself in His Glory or Energies. The manifestation of God’s Glory allows humanity to comprehend the mystery of God according to its ability. In effect, the manifestation of God’s Glory corresponds with the Christology of St. John, who says,

“The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world” (John 1.9).

God, as a Mystery, penetrates all of the religions and all of their theological elaborations. The identification of God with Holiness, as experienced by humanity, marks a meeting point for all of the religions. It is a starting point of our engagement and the beginning of discussion. Every religion relates to God through opening the horizons towards a transcendent reality and the relation becomes our beacon for mutual understanding. The direction towards God’s Holiness negates the question of syncretism and avoids reductionism. A close relationship with God requires a substantial Christian knowledge that gives us an unexpected spiritual experience for sharing and transforming the world. The Glory of God gives us convergence and mutual understanding. We relate to God in our personal religious experience and as such there is a presence of the chosen ones: saints, who have attained the close relationship with the Holiness of God.

According to Saint Gregory the Theologian, humanity is longing for God the Creator, Who brought humanity to life. It is unquestionable that God is also searching for humankind as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity seals this unique and only relationship between Divine and human. Trinitarian theology marks, at this time, its fundamental importance. It is a universal anthropological phenomenon that directs every individual towards the Higher and Absolute. Among all the religions, there is a search for the identity of the Divine that is continual and at the same time mysterious. The entire universe is embraced by the energies or the Glory of God that penetrates all creation and calls humanity into an intimate relation with the Divine:

“Father of us all, Who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4.6).

The revelation of the personal God corresponds with the theological truth of the origin of the world and continual relation with the world through the Glory of God. God is in relation with His creation to the point that Isaiah doesn’t hesitate to state,

“Holy, Holy, Holy are You the Lord of Hosts, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory” (Isaiah 6:3).

The specific kind of revelation of God corresponds with the living image (Gen 1.27) and likeness (Gen 1.26) of God that is found in humanity irrespective of race, religion, language, or nationality. According to the Orthodox theology, the existence of the image and likeness of God in every human being requires a sincere acceptance of them as brothers and sisters with the inner predisposition towards free will. In the pluralistic society,

“The society can and must become a household, where everyone is open to the “other” (as they are open to the Ultimate Other, i.e. God), and where all can share common life, despite the plurality and difference of (their) identity”.

The recapitulation of the dignity of humankind according to the Christological foundation, with its eschatological orientation summarizes the immensity of man in the entire creation. The presence of the “other” facilitates a common search for the meaning of life and death, and the painful reality of the presence of suffering. There is a necessity in the inter-religious dialogue for further elaboration of the “theology of otherness”. The inter-religious dialogue demands from all of us a search for healthy anthropology that reaches to the depths of our inner being. A specific kind of relationship between human being and God gives us a foundation for religious anthropology that becomes a second kind of convergence for the inter-religious dialogue. The dignity of man and the basic presupposition of freedom are all embracing realities so fundamental to the mutual understanding of the entire world. This convergence could become a foundation for the globally accepted ethics, where the dignity of human life is defined and universally defended. It is at this point that we can accentuate the elements of Christology and their significance on the entire anthropology.

The incarnation of God also restores the original destiny of the entire world. There is a need for the further development of the theology of creation. Placement of the origin of the world in God requires the existence of a specific relationship with the world and care for creation. The creation of the world by God identifies the requirement of specific Holiness for the entire creation. Patriarch Bartholomew of the Ecumenical Patriarchate does not hesitate to call the destruction of ecology a specific kind of sin. The sacredness of the creation presupposes the existence of “otherness” in the world:

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 23.11).

Elaboration on the subject of creation becomes a definite point of convergence universally recognized by all religions.

The third fundamental aspect of the Trinitarian theology, briefly identified in the document (chapter 32 and 33), is the pneumatological character of God’s revelation. The Orthodox theology views the activity of the Holy Spirit very broadly. The aspect of Pneumatology is never conceptualized and defined in a strict definition or theological formula. The presence of the Holy Spirit transcends any human thought or concept. The only limitation of the Spirit’s energy in the world is the lack of His limitation. The truth of the Holy Spirit’s transcendent energy corresponds to St. John 3:8:

“The Spirit blows where it wills”.

The Holy Spirit corresponds with the actions of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22). In effect, every manifestation of goodness found in humanity is defined by St. Justin the Martyr, a 2nd century apologist, as the presence of the “spermatikos logos”. The use of this phrase by Justin the Martyr and later on by Clement of Alexandria and Basil the Great, has immense implications for the inter-religious discussion. In the monastic literature of the Orthodox Church, there is an emphasis on the fact that every human being has Christ in his very nature. It opens new horizons towards mutual understanding among religions. The phrase will be further elaborated by Saint Maximos the Confessor, who would say,

“the God-Logos of God-the-Father is secretly present in every one of His commandments… Therefore, he who receives one divine commandment and fulfills it receives God’s Logos who is present in it”.

The fruits of the Holy Spirit can be found in every corner of the world and as such they become the corner-stone for inter-religious discussion. Further presentation of pneumatology is required as it is the Holy Spirit that sanctifies every person transforming the world into the Kingdom of God. It must be a paradox to say that everything, except sin, belongs to the Kingdom. One of the most known contemporary theologian professors, John N. Karmiris, based on the presented theology, moves even further, stating that the salvation of non-Christians depends on the all-good, all-wise, and all-powerful God, who acts in the Church, but also through other “ways”.


As we can observe on the above convergences, according to the Orthodox theological approach, the discussion proceeds from above: God the Holy Trinity and culminates in the anthropology and creation. It is a dynamic process that requires a constant development and adjustment as it corresponds to the aspect of relationship. As such, the globalized society demands not a mere tolerance, but a dynamic challenge for mutual understanding and creative cooperation. We are obliged to “act in local context keeping a universal and eschatological perspective”. The change of approach is one of those elements that has to be refocused and reinforced by the document of the WCC on religious pluralism. Let us remember that the change also requires a progress in time, patience, and continual prayer. There are some moments in our inter-religious discussion when silence is the only answer we have at that particular moment. At the very end, even silence, penetrated by the presence of the Holy Spirit, becomes a tremendous power that moves all humanity towards a new dimension never thought of before.